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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 238-241

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Book Review

The Last Colonies

The Last Colonies. Edited by ROBERT ALDRICH and JOHN CONNELL. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv + 335. $55.95 (cloth).

Studies of the processes of decolonization, analyses of the "end of empires," have multiplied in recent years. Scholarly and popular accounts of the collapse of the European colonial empires in the second half of the twentieth century are now readily found in bookshops and libraries. One consequence of this increased knowledge has been the emergence of a conventional wisdom as to the main features of the disappearance of the colonial world. The old imperial powers--for instance Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands--gradually succumbed to a variety of pressures that made the practical difficulties and financial costs of continuing their colonial rule insupportable. For example, metropolitan electorates demanded welfare and lost the will to dominate overseas as the necessary money and manpower seemed ever harder to find. Sufficient and effective local collaborators in the colonial territories began to melt away as nationalist movements, skillfully deploying violence and electoral politics, steadily undermined the value and security of colonial regimes. International politics, driven by the great-power rivalries of the Cold War and increasingly influenced by "Third World" governments, encouraged the development of a prevalent mood of "anti-colonialism" in international affairs. Increasingly costly and disreputable, colonies were jettisoned and sovereign [End Page 238] independence was claimed, with as much face-saving grace as possible or with rancor, force, and bloodshed if necessary.

In this valuable and wide-ranging work, Richard Aldrich and John Connell have done much to explore the emerging limitations of this general outlook on one of the great global transformations of the twentieth century. They start with the salutary reminder that in our own supposedly "post-colonial" age, and notwithstanding the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, colonies are still very much with us. By their reckoning there are still nine colonial powers, and allowing for the absence of Belgium, the roll call looks much as it did in the 1950s. Between them they claim sovereignty over fifty-nine colonies. Since they wrote, only Macao has gone, returned to China in 1999. What is striking, Aldrich and Connell argue, is that despite these numbers the momentum towards further decolonization seems virtually to have ceased. In "a world where nationalism, in various manifestations, is pervasive and where independence is usually taken to be the endpoint of political evolution," how does one explain "the persistence of dependent overseas territories" (p. 9)? Their book sets out to answer this question.

Continued colonial status has clearly been influenced to some extent by certain basic conditions. A few colonies, Antarctic territories, or Pacific possessions like the Heard and McDonald Islands, have no permanent inhabitants; many others are comparatively small, both in area and population; left to their own devices, most would be likely to have poor prospects. Faced with a choice between either independence and worsening poverty or a measure of security and some hope of material improvement, albeit subject to a measure of dependence, peoples from the Caribbean to the Pacific have chosen the latter. However, the conditions of the late twentieth-century world are such that the choice of continued colonial status has frequently been a real one.

In governmental terms, colonial status itself has become far more flexible and varied as all manner of alternatives "between integration and independence" (p. 58) have been explored. Constitutional inventiveness and administrative variety have frequently accommodated substantial degrees of democratic self government, satisfying many aspirations for control over local affairs and sapping the dynamism of potential nationalist movements. At the same time, the economic advantages of colonial dependency have in many places been greatly enhanced: The Cayman Islands is but one example of those that have carved out financial niches for themselves in the global economy. Even the poorest have benefited from changing attitudes toward the role of [End Page 239] governments, public and welfare spending, and international development aid. Although the development of tourism has...